Raleigh, N.C. — The second round of the Fire in the Triangle competition dining series featured an epic battle that saw pralines, Pepsi cheesecake and pork creme brulee. And that was just dessert!
Facing off in Monday night's battle were two chef who were more than up to the challenge of the night's secret ingredients John Childers of Herons at the Umstead and Jason Cunningham of the Washington Duke Inn.
The night's secret ingredients were Cheshire Heritage Pork picnic and skirts and Pepsi!
If those ingredients sound familiar, they should. Pork and Pepsi were the secret ingredients for last year's Final Fire battle, which saw Weathervane's Ryan Payne take home the win.
Chefs prepared three dishes each featuring the night's secret ingredients.
This year local craft breweries are being featured during Fire in the Triangle, and this week Trophy Brewing Company did not disappoint. Diners had the choice between their Next Best in Show, an American Saison, and the Class Clown, an American Brown. Both went great with the night's secret ingredient, so you really couldn't go wrong.
As always, wine selections were provided by Juice Wine Purveyors out of Raleigh.
Here's a rundown of each course, reviews and results. In each round and overall, diners (the Joes) and local media foodies (the Pros) grade the dish on aroma, presentation, creativity and other factors. All scores are out of a possible 30 points.
Course 1: Pan Roasted Black Drum, Roasted Corn, Pepsi Braised Cheshire Pork Skirt Hash, Heirloom Tomato and Soy-Pepsi Syrup (Washington Duke) (Score: 20.32)
The syrup was a favorite element among many diners with diner Mike Frost wishing there was more of it on his plate.
Cunningham originally planned to put just one swipe of the sauce on each plate but opted for two.
Trophy Brewing's head brewer Les Stewart really enjoyed the roasted corn, noting that it was an "exceptional accompaniment."
Stewart's beer was also an "exceptional accompaniment" for several diners, who noted that the Class Clown and its Macadamia nut tones went very well with it.
Course 2: Cola Glazed Maple Leaf Farms Duck, Cheshire Pork Skirt Steak Stew, Pepsi BBQ Eggplant, Charred Green Onion (Herons) (Score: 19.79)
This dish had fans of duck rejoicing, while those not as fond of the fowl calling "foul."
Luke Starrett really enjoyed it, but wished it was just a little crispier. Stewart, another duck enthusiast, was thrilled to get a cut with a little fat on it, noting that the duck fat really held the sauce well.
For Joyce Cooke, the duck was delicious but she didn't taste as much Pepsi in the dish as she would have liked.
The non-duck fans out there weren't as excited with the chewiness of the meat, but duck is known to be chewy, Starrett said.
Course 3: Braised Cheshire Picnic Roulade with Steel Cut Oat and Tasso Ham Stuffing, Warm Apple Celery Salad, Pepsi Andouille Reduction (Washington Duke) (Score: 21.84)
Diners were mixed on this dish.
"The intensity of the ingredients didn't seem to match," Stewart said.
While professional judge for the evening Wendy Perry, a culinary adventurist, loved it calling the use of oatmeal "unique."
Once again, the reduction is what got people talking the most at my table.
Course 4: Country Fried Cheshire Pork with Bacon and Onion Jam, Smoked Ham and Pepsi Gravy, Stone Ground Grits, Roasted Squash (Herons) (Score: 20.24)
This dish was a highlight for many diners, with many citing the grits as a favorite element.
Starrett enjoyed them but wasn't a fan of the whipped consistency. He would have liked a little more corn texture.
For diner Jon Robertson, it was perfection.
"It had all the things I like - and squash," he said.
Some called the entire dish "exquisite" and others weren't as enthused.
There were some discrepancies between dishes. At the same table, one diner had a rare cut of pork, while the person next to him dined on an overcooked piece.
Course 5: Pepsi Cheesecake with Graham Cracker and Ham Crust, Pork Cracklin’ Crumble, Cherry Pepsi Syrup, Bourbon Praline (Washington Duke) (Score: 23.43)
I think Stewart summed it up here best. "This is pretty damn good," he said.
As folks bit into the praline, you could hear reactions like "Wow" and "This is great."
You couldn't really taste the ham in the crust, but the pork cracklin' crumble did delight with a hint of pork flavor. Cunningham said he was thinking about adding more ham into the crust, but decided against it at the last minute.
The cheesecake itself was sweet but not too rich. The Pepsi syrup and the praline were just the icing on the cake.
Cunningham said he felt the pralines could have been cooked just a bit longer. He was working without a candy thermometer, which broke in the first round. Diners didn't seem to care as they devoured the accompaniment.
Course 6: Short Skirt Crema Catalana, Maple Pepsi Smoked Cheshire Pork Crouton, Crispy Cornbread, Pepsi Pickled Apples (Herons) (Score 15.08)
This Spanish version of a creme brulee had diners reacting in many different ways.
Perry and emcee Jimmy Crippen were huge fans of the flavor, the texture and the execution.
The sentiment at some tables, however, was a drastic contrast.
One diner noted that she was enjoying the dish at first, then would get a chunk of pork - taking her out of the dessert entirely.
Apparently many diners weren't a huge fan of the dish, as the scores were the lowest of the evening.
The talent of these chefs cannot be denied.
Crippen called this one of the best dinners to date and diners agreed, scoring four of the six dishes 20 or above (out of a possible 30).
"This is what why we do this, for dinners like these," Crippen said.
With such talented chefs, it was no surprise that the meal was such a close battle. It all seemed to come down to dessert.
In the end, Cunningham edged out Childers, last year's Fire in the Triangle runner-up.
Cunningham was pleased with his dishes and said he is looking forward to the next round where he will face Tuesday night's winner - either 518 West or Flights.
The Fire in the Triangle website has more information on how scores are calculated.
Future rounds are sold out, but check with WRAL's Out and About for recaps, exclusive content and more from each battle. We are the official bloggers this year!
Fire in the Triangle is part of the Got to Be NC competition dining series. The winner from the Triangle will go on to compete against the winners of the Fire on the Rock, Fire on the Dock, Fire in the Triad and Fire in the City competitions. The last chef standing wins $2,000 and the coveted red chef’s jacket. The runner-up will get $500.